Director: Cheng Er
Notable Cast: Tony Leung, Wang Yibo, Eric Wang, Zhou Xun, Huang Lei, Chengpeng Dong, Maggie Jiang, Zhang Jingyi, Hiroyuki Mori
Although the Japanese occupation of China has been the topic of umpteen-million Chinese films throughout their cinematic history, many different genres approach the subject in unique ways so that it still can feel fresh… with the proper execution. Hidden Blade, the latest film from director Cheng Er, leaps into the world of Shanghai in the late 1930s and early 1940s during the Japanese occupation. It’s not a wholly original concept, in fact, Cheng Er dealt with similar subject matters in his previous effort The Wasted Times, but it’s an artful and tensely executed espionage film with an overt style that slices through each moment.
While the big draw of the film will be Tony Leung doing his thing in a nifty period setting, which we will get to momentarily, the most fascinating aspect of Hidden Blade is its almost dream-like narrative structure. While the first act features some stunning visuals and tense key moments, it practically drifts in a fluid manner through each sequence in a way that thinly draws some connections but never solidifies the ‘why’ or even ‘when’ they are occurring.
This allows Hidden Blade to play games with its audience. The film is inherently about the Chinese men and women who are working with the Japanese during the occupation of its time frame, but it’s immediately known that each one carries ulterior motives. Like the characters, who hide, reveal, or manipulate one another, the narrative does the same. As allegiances shift, the characters bounce through their navigation of multiple alliances and it’s just damn good espionage. It’s toying with the audience and it’s entertaining in that manner.